A few years ago several Fundamentalists and anti-Catholic acquaintances began questioning me about the teachings of the Church. Even though I attended Catholic schools for twelve years I was unable to adequately defend my faith. As a teen I fell away from the Church, and found it difficult to return because I felt like such a hypocrite. But I eventually did. Following a 17-year confession and a couple of years of serious study, I learned how to explain simple teachings like why we Catholics call our priests "Father" when the Bible says, "Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven" (Matt. 23:9); or why we believe Mary remained a virgin her entire life; or how emphatically the Bible teaches that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist.
But what about today? Have Catholic schools improved the way our children are taught the basics of their faith? Pope John Paul II has called for "a new evangelization." The fathers of Vatican II, in Gravissimum Educationis, wrote that "the importance and need of catechetical instruction in Catholic schools cannot be sufficiently emphasized" (no. 51). Do parents today really know what their children are being taught in Catholic schools?
As part of a course project I recently surveyed nearly five hundred Catholic high school students throughout the seven dioceses in Michigan. I wanted to see if today’s high school students had a grasp of basic Church teachings. The survey consisted of fourteen multiple-choice questions (see sidebar).
On the positive side, ninety-one percent of those responding knew there were two kinds of sin, mortal and venial, and ninety-nine percent knew that mortal sin kills the life of the soul and separates us from the love of God. Ninety-four percent knew that Adam and Eve committed the "original sin," while seventy-three percent understood that the pope is infallible only regarding issues of faith and morals. The existence and purpose of purgatory was understood by eighty-eight percent.
But while fifty-three percent knew Jesus founded the Catholic Church (Matt. 16:18), forty-four percent said Peter did. Less than half—forty-seven percent—correctly answered that the normal way for having our sins forgiven is through the sacrament of confession, while just forty-six percent understood the doctrine of the communion of saints. When asked if they believe in hell as a place of eternal suffering for those who die separated from the love of God, only forty-nine percent responded "yes." Fifty-one percent are either not sure or don’t believe that hell exists. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, only thirty-eight percent recognize the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This is only slightly higher than a recent Gallup poll that found just thirty-three percent of today’s Catholics believe in the Real Presence.
So what does all this mean? I’m not sure. The survey was not scientific, but judging from letters I received from teachers and religious educators it is very clear that many, if not most, of our Catholic schools are not teaching the deposit of faith as put forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Modernism, the idea that we come to our beliefs individually through emotional or personal experiences, has crept into our Catholic schools.
All too often we see evangelization as bringing non-Catholics into the fullness of truth that is found only in the Catholic Church. But instead of looking outside our Church I believe we must first look inward. We must re-evangelize the Catholics of today, especially our children, because when they leave home for college or the workplace they will face questioning by those who do not understand or accept Catholicism. Millions have left the Church for an Evangelical or Charismatic church that is more "entertaining." But there is only one truth. That truth is not a "something," it is a "somebody"—his name is Jesus Christ and he says, "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). While new converts continue to join the Church, each year millions of cradle Catholics leave because they were never evangelized. As these cradle Catholics grow up and have their faith questioned, they need the right answers.
How can we change things? First, we must pray and ask God for the desire and ability to understand his Holy Word. Never underestimate the power of prayer. We cannot be saved without it. Consider this: We cannot be saved until we fulfill the will of God. We are unable to do God’s will unless we are assisted by his divine grace, and we obtain this grace by prayer alone. Therefore, we must pray in order to be saved.
Second, as adults we must educate ourselves. We must come to know Jesus Christ personally. That sounds like a very Protestant thing to say, but it is nevertheless true. A Catholic education taught me about Jesus but not in a personal sense. I never picked up a Bible while I was in school. I never had a Bible or a catechism as a textbook. I was just told to listen to the priest each Sunday as he explained the Gospel reading. My parents have told me they were actually discouraged from reading the Bible—that was to be left to those who could better interpret it for us.
One of the greatest surprises I found when I began studying the faith was the large number of Catholic bookstores and organizations with outstanding books, audio and video tapes, pamphlets, tracts, and much more. Get hold of some, but don’t stop there. Obtain some of the truly vicious anti-Catholic materials and tracts that seem to be everywhere. These materials have pulled millions of uneducated Catholics away from the Church. Learn to recognize the deception in these materials. You will find some of them revolting, but we need to educate ourselves.
Third, sit down with your children and find out what they are being taught in school. Look through their books. Ask them about the basic teachings they are learning. Make sure these teachings conform to the Catechism. Show them the anti-Catholic materials and tracts and explain the lies in these materials. If you don’t, one day your children might discover them when you’re not around to answer their questions.
Fourth, meet with your child’s religious educator. It is undoubtedly difficult to go the extra mile. No one likes to be viewed as a gadfly, but pray for the courage to do so. The salvation of your daughter or son may be on the line. Ask if the religion teacher is loyal to the magisterium. Be specific in your questions. Ask if he believes in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the doctrines of purgatory, hell, and the communion of saints. See if she believes in original sin or if he thinks women should be allowed to be priests. You wouldn’t go to just any doctor with a serious medical problem. You would check out his or her credentials. How much more critical are the credentials and beliefs of those who are entrusted with the spiritual development and instruction of your child? The fathers of Vatican II reiterated the duty of parents "to entrust their children to Catholic schools, when and where this is possible, to support such schools to the extent of their ability, and to work along with them for the welfare of their children" (Gravissimum Educationis, no. 8).
A few years ago Fr. Lucian Hebert, the priest who baptized me and gave me my First Communion, was visiting me with my Mom and girlfriend present. Near the end of our visit Father said, "Remember one thing: The eighty years that we spend on this earth are nothing but a blink of an eye compared to all eternity." Two days later Fr. Hebert died but his message has been with me every day since. Nothing we do in this lifetime is as important as the eternal salvation of our souls and the souls of those God has entrusted to us.